Barbara Demick “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

Excerpt of Nothing to Envy

Mi-ran and Jun-sang met when they were in their early teens. They lived on the outskirts of Chongjin, one of the industrial cities in the northeast of the peninsula, not far from the border with Russia.

The North Korean landscape is perfectly depicted by the black brushstrokes of Oriental painting. It is strikingly beautiful in places—from an American frame of reference, it could be said to resemble the Pacific Northwest— but somehow devoid of color. The palette has a limited run from the dark greens of the firs, junipers, and spruce to the milky gray of the granite peaks. The lush green patchwork of the rice paddies so characteristic of the Asian countryside can be seen only during a few months of the summer rainy season. The autumn brings a brief flash of foliage. The rest of the year everything is yellow and brown, the color leached away and faded.

The clutter that you see in South Korea is entirely absent. There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian, and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the cities there are “pigeon coops,” one- room units in low- rise apartment buildings, while in the countryside, people typically live in single- story buildings called “harmonicas,” rows of one-room homes, stuck together like the little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica. Occasionally, door frames and window sashes are painted a startling turquoise, but mostly everything is whitewashed or gray.

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in the vivid poster colors favored by the Socialist Realism style of painting. The Great Leader sits on a bench smiling benevolently at a group of brightly dressed children crowding around him. Rays of yellow and orange emanate from his face: He is the sun.

Red is reserved for the lettering of the ubiquitous propaganda signs. The Korean language uses a unique alphabet made up of circles and lines. The red letters leap out of the gray landscape with urgency. They march across the fields, preside over the granite cliffs of the mountains, punctuate the main roads like mileage markers, and dance on top of railroad stations and other public buildings.


Until her early teens, Mi-ran had no reason not to believe the signs. Her father was a humble mine worker. Her family was poor, but so was everyone they knew. Since all outside publications, films, and broadcasts were banned, Mi- ran assumed that nowhere else in the world were people better off, and that most probably fared far worse. She heard many, many times on the radio and television that South Koreans were miserable under the thumb of the pro- American puppet leader Park Chung- hee and, later, his successor, Chun Doohwan. They learned that China’s diluted brand of communism was less successful than that brought by Kim Il- sung and that millions of Chinese were going hungry. All in all, Mi-ran felt she was quite lucky to have been born in North Korea under the loving care of the fatherly leader.

In fact, the village where Mi-ran grew up was not such a bad place in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a cookie- cutter North Korean village of about one thousand people, stamped out by central planning to be indistinguishable from other such villages, but its location was fortuitous. The East Sea (the Sea of Japan) was only six miles away, so locals could occasionally eat fresh fish and crab. The village lay just beyond the smokestacks of Chongjin and so had the advantages of proximity to the city as well as open space on which to grow vegetables. The terrain was relatively flat, a blessing in a country where level ground for planting is scarce. Kim Il-sung kept one of his many vacation villas at the nearby hot springs.

Mi-ran was the youngest of four girls. In 1973, when she was born, this was as much a calamity in North Korea as it was in nineteenth-century England when Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice about the plight of a family with five daughters. Both North and South Koreans are steeped in Confucian traditions in which boys carry on the family line and care for elderly parents. Mi-ran’s parents were ultimately spared the tragedy of having no sons with the birth of one three years after Mi-ran, but it meant their youngest daughter was the forgotten child of the family.

They lived in a single unit of a harmonica house, befitting Mi-ran’s father’s status. The entrance led directly into a small kitchen that doubled as a furnace room. Wood or coal would be shoveled into a hearth. The fire it produced was used both to cook and to heat the home by means of an underfloor system known as ondol. A sliding door separated the kitchen from the main room where the entire family slept on mats that were rolled up during the day. The birth of the boy swelled the family size to eight— the five children, their parents, and a grandmother. So Mi- ran’s father bribed the head of the people’s committee to give them an adjacent unit and allow them to cut a door into the adjoining wall.

In a larger space, the sexes became segregated. At mealtime, the women would huddle together over a low wooden table near the kitchen, eating cornmeal, which was cheaper and less nutritious than rice, the preferred staple of North Koreans. The father and son ate rice at their own table.

“I thought this was just the way life naturally is,” Mi-ran’s brother, Sok- ju, would tell me later.

If the older sisters noticed, they didn’t make a fuss, but Mi-ran would burst into tears and rail against the injustice.

“Why is Sok-ju the only one who gets new shoes?” she demanded. “Why does Mama only take care of Sok-ju and not me?”

They would hush her up without answering.

It wasn’t the first time she would rebel against the strictures placed on young women. In North Korea at the time, girls weren’t supposed to ride bicycles. There was a social stigma— people thought it unsightly and sexually suggestive— and periodically the Workers’ Party would issue formal edicts, making it technically illegal. Mi-ran ignored the rule. From the time she was eleven years old she would take the family’s single bicycle, a used Japanese model, on the road to Chongjin. She needed to get away from the oppression of her little village, to go anywhere at all. It was an arduous ride for a child, about three hours uphill, only part of the way on an asphalt road. Men would try to pass her on their bicycles, cursing her for her audacity.

“You’re going to tear your cunt,” they would scream at her.

Sometimes a group of teenage boys would career into her path trying to knock her off the bicycle. Mi-ran would scream back, matching obscenity with obscenity. Eventually she learned to ignore them and keep on pedaling.

There was only one reprieve for Mi-ran in her hometown—the cinema.

Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong-il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses. In 1971, when he was thirty years old, Kim Jong- il got his first job, overseeing the Workers’ Party’s Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation, which ran the country’s film studios. He published a book in 1973, On the Art of Cinema, in which he expounded on his theory that “revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution.”

Under Kim Jong-il’s direction, the Korean Feature Film Studio on the outskirts of Pyongyang was expanded to a 10-million-squarefoot lot. It churned out forty movies per year. The films were mostly dramas with the same themes: The path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective. Capitalism was pure degradation. When I toured the studio lot in 2005, I saw a mock-up of what was supposed to be a typical street in Seoul, lined with run-down storefronts and girly bars.

No matter that the films were pure propaganda, Mi-ran loved going to the movies. She was as much a cinephile as one could be growing up in a small town in North Korea. From the time she was old enough to walk to the theater herself, she begged her mother for money to buy tickets. Prices were kept low—just half a won, or a few cents, about the same as a soft drink. Mi-ran saw everything she could. Some movies were deemed too risqué for children, such as the 1985 film Oh My Love in which it was suggested that a man and a woman kissed. Actually, the leading lady modestly lowered her parasol so moviegoers never saw their lips touch, but that was enough to earn the film the equivalent of an R rating. Hollywood films were, of course, banned from North Korea, as were virtually all other foreign films, with the exception of an occasional entry from Russia. Mi-ran especially liked the Russian films because they were less propagandistic than North Korean ones and more romantic.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a dreamy girl who went to the cinema for on-screen romance should have found there for herself the real thing.
They met in 1986, when there was still enough electricity to run the movie projectors. The culture hall was the most imposing structure in town, built in a rather grandiose style popular in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. Two stories high, big enough to accommodate a mezzanine, the theater had a huge portrait of Kim Il-sung covering its facade. The dimensions were dictated by regulations that all images of the Great Leader be commensurate with the size of the building. The culture hall served as a cinema, theater, and lecture hall. On public holidays, such as Kim Il-sung’s birthday, it would host contests to name the citizens who best followed the example of the Great Leader. The rest of the time the theater showed movies, a fresh film arriving every few weeks from Pyongyang.

Jun-sang was every bit as crazy about the movies as Mi-ran. As soon as he heard there was a new film, he rushed to be first to see it. The film on this particular occasion was Birth of a New Government. It was set in Manchuria during World War II, where Korean Communists led by a young Kim Il-sung had been organized to resist the Japanese colonial occupation. The anti- Japanese resistance was as familiar a theme in North Korean cinema as cowboys and Indians was in early Hollywood. The movie was expected to draw big crowds because it starred a popular actress.

Jun-sang got to the theater early. He secured two tickets, one for himself and one for his brother. He was pacing around outside when he spotted her.

Mi-ran was standing toward the back of a crowd surging its way toward the box office. Movie audiences in North Korea tend to be young and rowdy. This crowd was especially rough. The bigger kids had pushed their way to the front of the line and formed a cordon blocking the younger ones from the box office. Jun-sang moved in to take a better look at the girl. She was stamping her feet with frustration and looked like she might cry.

The North Korean standard of beauty calls for pale skin, the whiter the better, a round face, and bow- shaped mouth, but this girl looked nothing like that. Her facial features were long and pronounced, her nose high-bridged, and her cheekbones well defined. To Jun-sang, she looked almost foreign and a little wild. Her eyes flashed with anger at the melee at the box office. She didn’t seem like other girls, who made self-effacing gestures and covered their mouths when they laughed. Jun-sang sensed in her a spirited impatience, as if she hadn’t been beaten down by life in North Korea. He was immediately enchanted.

At fifteen, Jun-sang was naggingly aware that he was interested in girls in a generalized way, but had never focused on a particular girl—until now. He had seen enough movies to be able to step out of himself and envision what this first encounter with her might look like if it were unfolding on-screen. He would later remember the moment in a dreamlike Technicolor, with a mystical glow around Mi-ran.

“I can’t believe there is a girl like that in this little town,” he told himself.

He walked around the perimeter of the crowd a couple of times to get a better look and debated what to do. He was a scholar, not a fighter. It wouldn’t do to try to push his way back to the box office. Then an idea lodged in his mind. The movie was about to start, and his brother wasn’t there yet. If he sold her the extra movie ticket, she would have to sit next to him since the tickets were for assigned seats. He circled her again, formulating in his mind the exact words he would use to offer her the ticket.

In the end, he couldn’t muster the courage to speak to a girl he didn’t know. He slipped into the movie theater. As the screen filled with the image of the movie’s heroine galloping across a snowy field, Jun- sang thought of the opportunity he had let pass. The actress played a fierce resistance fighter who wore her hair tomboy-short and rode her horse across the Manchurian steppe, proclaiming revolutionary slogans. Jun-sang couldn’t stop thinking of the girl outside the theater. When the credits rolled at the end of the movie, he rushed outside to look for her, but she was gone.